Coke Zero 400 - Qualifying

Will Tony Stewart finally break Daytona 500 jinx on Sunday?

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – What should potentially be one of the biggest storylines heading into Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500 hasn’t even registered a blip on the NASCAR media radar this year.

With so much attention focused on Austin Dillon bringing the legendary No. 3 back to the Sprint Cup Series after a 13-year absence and then putting it on the pole for Sunday’s race, the media seem to have forgotten an almost equally important story.

Tony Stewart will make his 16th consecutive career start in the Daytona 500 this Sunday, making him third among active drivers with the most starts without a win in the field for the Great American Race.

Terry Labonte, who has announced that Sunday will be his final career start at Daytona, tops the list with 32 starts in the 500 without a win. Brother Bobby will make his 22nd start on Sunday without a win in the big race.

Over the last four or five 500s, Stewart has come into Speedweeks as arguably one of the key focal points of media attention not because of what he’s done, but what he’s not done.

But no one is talking about Stewart’s 0-for-15 record in this year’s edition of Speedweeks.

Stewart comes into Sunday as essentially the Dale Earnhardt of his generation when it comes to Daytona 500 success. After years of frustration, Earnhardt finally won his first – and ultimately only – Daytona 500 in his 20th try in 1998.

At the same time, Stewart, a winner of 48 career races in 521 starts on the Cup circuit, is somewhat of a paradox.

It’s not that he’s a bad driver at Daytona. In 30 career Cup starts there, he has four wins, but all have come in summer’s Coca Zero 400. Stewart also has nine top-5 and 14 top-10 finishes on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.

He also has seven Nationwide Series wins there.

After four top-five and three other top-10 finishes in an eight-year stretch of the 500 from 2002 through 2009 (he also finished a career-worse 43rd in 2007), Stewart has struggled in the last four editions of the Great American Race: 22nd (2010), 13th (2011), 16th (2012) and his second-worst finish in the race, 41st, last season.

“You look at marquee events around the world, and not only NASCAR but in all of motorsports – the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours At Daytona, the Indy 500, the Knoxville Nationals – and to be a driver that can cross off one of those marquee events as a winner, that cements your legacy in motorsports,” Stewart said. “To be able to win the Daytona 500 is the ultimate dream of a racecar driver.”

A Daytona 500 win is unquestionably “No. 1” on his bucket list, Stewart said.

“I may never get a chance to run in those other marquee events, so that’s why it puts the Daytona 500 at the top, because it’s something that we actually have a shot at,” Stewart said, referring again to Le Mans, the Indy 500, etc. “But it is hard. It’s a hard race, and it’s not like you get to come back next week and try it again if you don’t accomplish it. You get one shot a year to accomplish this goal.”

With Sunday being Stewart’s first official points-paying Cup race since last summer’s wreck in a sprint car race that resulted in a severely broken leg and caused him to miss the final 15 races of the season, a win Sunday would be all the more sweeter.

That’s not to say Stewart hasn’t come close to winning NASCAR’s biggest race. He was runner-up in the 2004 race and third in 2002 and 2008.

The latter finish still eats at Stewart six years later, when he watched Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch make a last lap charge past him to the checkered flag to finish 1-2.

“I’ve run that race over in my mind a million times on what I thought I could’ve done differently,” Stewart said. “If it would’ve been the Daytona 498, I had it won. I was forced to make a decision of whether I was going to put my whole race in jeopardy to win it, or know that I was getting passed but I may have a shot to get it back in the end.

“I took the safer route, and I wish I would’ve thrown caution to the wind. I think I would’ve rather crashed out of it knowing that I did everything I could, but I wasn’t sure that if I made the move to block Ryan to get in front of him – they were coming at such a high rate of speed – I was probably going to crash half the field if I moved.

“That decision to play it safe has haunted me ever since. So, if that situation happens again, I may come back on a hook, but at least I can say I know I did everything I could do to give myself that shot.”

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Vettel’s focus on performance, not new contract, at Ferrari

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari in the Drivers Press Conference during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel is not yet thinking about negotiating a new Formula 1 contract with Ferrari beyond the end of 2017, preferring to focus on the final four races of the current season and developing a new car for next year.

Vettel joined Ferrari in 2015 and scored three race wins in his maiden season with the team, but has failed to reach the top step of the podium in 2016 as rivals Mercedes and Red Bull have pulled clear in the pecking order.

Vettel’s contract with Ferrari expires at the end of next season, but the German stressed that both he and the team are focused on improving its on-track results first.

“I think we are all fairly busy at this time to focus on the four races that are left and focus in particular to prepare for next year,” Vettel said.

“So I think that’s where, honestly, the main focus lies. I don’t think it’s that important to look into details.

“My contract is all fine for next year, so as I said, with a lot of things happening back at the factory, back in Maranello, I know we’re very, very busy and that’s where I want also the focus to be.”

Vettel remains hopeful of breaking Ferrari’s win drought in 2016, believing the team to have made a good step forward in recent weeks ahead of Sunday’s United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas.

“I think there is always a chance [of winning],” Vettel said.

“I think obviously in Japan we did some progress, so that was a positive, but as you said, it was probably was a good summary of our season so far.

“Nevertheless, I think the most important thing is that we fight, we give everything we have, and it could have been a better in Japan, it wasn’t and so we’re ready for this race.”

Hamilton would take F1 title defeat to Rosberg ‘like a man’

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the Drivers Press Conference during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton says he would take a potential Formula 1 championship defeat to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg “like a man” should the German win the title in 2016.

Hamilton enters this weekend’s United States Grand Prix trailing Rosberg by 33 points in the drivers’ standings with four rounds remaining this season.

Rosberg is chasing his maiden F1 title in 2016, having been the runner-up behind Hamilton for the past two years, and is now in a position where four second-place finishes would be enough to clinch him the championship.

With title permutations already being worked out, Hamilton was asked in Thursday’s press conference in Austin how he would react to Rosberg winning the championship.

“Try to take it like a man. You can’t win them all,” Hamilton said.

“Look at all the world champions in the past who’ve won championships and lost championships – it is part of the game.

“I am in the position right now where there are still a lot of points available so I’m going to give it everything I’ve got and still have the belief that anything is possible – but then I’ll move on.

“Once it’s decided and it happens, all I can do about it is shape the future, which is the next year. So, life will move on, we’ll go into next season and hopefully come back stronger.”

Hamilton was forced to miss a Pirelli tire test in Barcelona last week due to a minor foot injury, but the Briton said he is now back to full fitness ahead of the race in Austin.

“I am 100 per cent, yeah, feeling great,” Hamilton said.

“I basically had an injury that I’ve been carrying generally all year long, in both feet. Just induced by running. Unfortunately the physio said that it just takes a lot of stretching and it just heals over a long time.

“At the time I woke up in the morning, I was feeling quite a lot of pain the day before, and it hadn’t diminished.

“The most important thing was to be fresh for here and feeling better for here. This is actually the first week that it’s felt good.”

Ricciardo on Webber: “He was a helping hand when I needed it”

during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at Bahrain International Circuit on April 3, 2016 in Sakhir, Bahrain.
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AUSTIN, Texas – Daniel Ricciardo has hailed his Australian countryman Mark Webber, after Webber announced just prior to last week’s FIA World Endurance Championship Six Hours of Fuji that he would retire at year’s end.

The two’s Formula 1 careers overlapped for only three seasons, from 2011 to 2013, before Ricciardo stepped up to Red Bull Racing in 2014 to replace Webber after he departed for the Porsche LMP1 program in the FIA WEC.

Webber, now 40, helped the 27-year-old Ricciardo throughout his career, and Ricciardo took the time to praise his countryman.

Not without adding his trademark sense of humor, first.

“Well, that Maaahhhk Webbaahhh,” Ricciardo said to lead it off.

“But yeah, it’s been an interesting career. Obviously, he’s had a pretty successful second period of his racing career post-F1. And I think he’s done well. So he was able to achieve that. He’s going to retire with a lot of happiness and comfort.”

Ricciardo said Webber was the Australian racing star his generation could relate to.

“For me, I think the impact he had growing up, obviously I knew of (Sir Jack) Brabham and (Alan) Jones and previous Australians before me, but Mark was the one I watched,” he explained. As a kid, I watched him growing up. And then, when he moved here (F1), the local racing community was talking about it.

“It was there in front of me when he was doing it and that sort of paved what seemed like an achievable path to follow.

“In the end, he was always nice to me. He was always there to call him, to give me advice. He understand the Red Bull system a little bit better. He was just a helping hand when I needed it.

“For us Aussies, it gave me a little bit of inspiration and motivation to move to Europe and follow what he was doing at the time.”

Ricciardo and Webber’s most memorable moment together this year was when Webber, who served as the podium interviewer at the Belgian Grand Prix, did Ricciardo’s now-signature “Shoey” at that race.

Nico Rosberg won with Ricciardo in second, but Webber succumbed to pressure in the moment and soaked up the taste of champagne out of a sweaty racing boot.

That’s dedication for you, mates.

Podcast: Haas F1 drivers explore NASCAR opportunities… at Talladega?

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 22:  Romain Grosjean of France and Haas F1 and Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico and Haas F1 pose with the new car outside the garage during day one of F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 22, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez will carry the home country’s flag for Haas F1 this weekend in the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit Of The Americas.

But the Formula One drivers also would like to race at other American tracks — namely those that play host to NASCAR races.

As guests on the latest NASCAR on NBC podcast, Grosjean and Gutierrez both said they have lobbied team owner Gene Haas about trying a stock car for Stewart-Haas Racing.

“I’d love to give it a go and try a day or two of testing and then see how we’re doing and from there have a go,” Grosjean said. “I do go-kart, I do ice racing, I do Formula One. I love driving, so NASCAR would be a really good thing to try.”

Said Gutierrez: “For me, it’s all about the curiosity to try something completely different. I’ve mentioned it once we should it as a team activity. It’s just (being) curious about a different concept.”

Grosjean has sat in an SHR Sprint Cup car and explored the concept of racing at Watkins Glen International, but scheduling logistics precluded it this year. He is hoping to revisit the concept of racing a NASCAR road course in 2017.

“Everything is different in the driving style,” the Frenchman said. “We brake very hard, very late, I’ve heard in NASCAR you don’t need to brake so hard.

“It would be different not being in the center of the car, with gear shift, but it would be a great experience. You’re fighting against the best drivers in NASCAR. They’ve been doing it for generations. It’d be a nice challenge, experience, and I’m sure I’d enjoy it.”

Gutierrez has more ambitious goals of driving a stock car on an oval, playfully suggesting a car swap with fellow countryman Daniel Suarez (a longtime friend whom he often raced while growing up in Mexico).

“It could be interesting just to go flat out and feel the limit of the car all the time,” Gutierrez said. “I’d go for a big one. Talladega. The craziest one.”

It won’t happen this weekend, of course. While NASCAR will be whittling its playoff field to eight drivers Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, Grosjean and Gutierrez will be racing in Austin, Texas.

It’s been an impressive debut season for Haas F1, which has scored points with Grosjean and advanced both cars to the final round of qualifying for the first time two weeks ago at Japan.

Grosjean said the team’s success is making inroads with American race fans.

“On social media, I can see that the United States grew massively in the percentage of my followers, which was great,” he said. “I wish we had more races in the U.S. It’s such a big country, we could have two to three grands prix. Definitely, things have changed, and people are really following us. It’ll be interesting to see how Austin goes.”

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.